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The remarkable story of the Londonderry doctor from a wealthy family who was made a Dame for her pioneering work to save women's lives

Dr Susan Bewley is the daughter of pioneering female doctor Beulah. She tells Una Brankin how writing her mother's memoirs helped the two bond after she came out as a lesbian

Published 24/08/2016

Dame Beulah Bewley
Dame Beulah Bewley
A family portrait with Susan in a white top
Dame Beulah with Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland
Susan (second from left) with her dad Thomas, mum and sister Emma on right
Fascinating discoveries: Dr Susan Bewley
Graduation day: Beulah with her mother and father

Dr Susan Bewley earned the wrath of her outspoken mother when she told her she was gay in her 20s. The Londonderry-born pioneering medic, Dame Beulah Bewley, was horrified when her eldest moved in with her girlfriend, but mother and daughter became closer when Susan was given the extraordinary opportunity to go over her mum's colourful life in fine detail.

A few years ago, the gifted academic began writing her memoir, My Life As A Woman and Doctor, looking back on her privileged childhood and education in Ballymena and in Dublin, and her distinguished career in England, where she was the first woman to graduate with an MSc in social medicine from the London School of Hygiene and tropical medicine and a leader of research into the effects of smoking in children and young people. She went on to become president of the Medical Women's Federation and treasurer at the General Medical Council.

But when her cardiovascular condition started to take its toll, Beulah enlisted the help of Susan and her siblings to help her finish her autobiography. The result is a fascinating view of a career in medicine and public health when it was very much a man's world.

Beulah takes you on a journey through her life, from making the decision she would be a doctor at age of five, to retiring in 1994, delivering a range of stories of career and family in a witty, straight-talking manner.

The mighty task of editing the book fell to Susan, a professor at King's College Hospital London, where George Best had a liver transplant in 2002. Once the black sheep of the family, Susan (58) ultimately gained a better understanding of Beulah while working on the memoir, and considered the challenge a privilege.

"We would take turns sitting with a tape recorder and asking her questions about her life," says Susan, an obstetrician. "Then I did the editing. It was an absolute pleasure. You find out so much about her life before we kids came along.

"Mummy has a wheelchair now but she walks a little around the house and talks sometimes, about her memories. But we're losing her."

At almost 87, Dame Beulah is gradually withdrawing from this world, due to the insidious march of dementia. She still lives at home in London with her frail husband Thomas (89), but they depend on carers to look after them.

As a child, Beulah was inspired by her local GP's interest in her and her illnesses (including appendicitis), going so far as to allow her to accompany him on home visits in his pony and trap in the Second World War. But her planned career as a hospital paediatrician was thwarted by emigration, marriage to Thomas, a handsome Dublin psychiatrist, and five children (one of whom, Sarah, died at 44, from Down syndrome complications), who kept her busy while she worked part-time in women and children's health for a decade.

Later, she retrained as an academic, focusing on children's smoking, and rose to the top of her second profession in public health. She ended up as honorary treasurer of the General Medical Council, the highest rank any woman has achieved there, and was made a Dame of the British Empire for her work for women in medicine.

The feisty Beulah's career makes for interesting reading but it's the earlier sections, on her Londonderry childhood, that this reader was most taken by.

"The patriarchal nature of Northern Irish society made her cross and drove her away, but her Irishness also drove her resolve to fight her battles throughout her career," says Susan. "I'd heard stories but I never quite appreciated, how much fun and how charming she was.

"As children, you often get the sharp end of your mother. I also hadn't realised quite how privileged her background was, and what a tremendously observational person she was. And racy. Two boyfriends at the same time when she was at university - oh my goodness!"

A vivacious child, Beulah was born in 1929 to Ulster Bank official John Knox and wealthy heiress Ina Charles, and brought up in a spacious Edwardian house in Bond's Hill with a nanny, maid, cleaner/laundry woman and a part-time chauffeur. She and her sisters, Eleanor (older by 18 months) and Maureen (younger by 14 months) were known as the 'fighting Knoxes' due to their frequent arguments. The sibling enmity seems to have persisted; in a later section of her book, Beulah notes that her sisters never recognised her as a Dame, an honour she received in 2000. "She hints that her sisters were jealous of her dame-hood," says Susan, who is as forthright as Beulah.

"I blame their mother, Ina, for setting them against each other. They were very close in age and their mother was a very intelligent woman with money but no educational opportunities open to her.

"I think she poured that frustration into her daughters and they became 'the fighting Knoxes'. She rubbed their noses in it and she favoured the ambitious doctor's daughter. And I think my mother has a waspish streak behind all that charm - for example, she introduced her sister to someone, saying 'she's younger than me but people don't think so'. That sort of thing."

Beulah's maternal grandfather, who'd made a lot of money on the Chicago stock exchange, bought the house in Londonderry and a family car for the Knoxs, as well as providing a private income for Ina.

"My father looked after it, as women were considered not sensible enough to know what to do with money," Beulah writes. "I was young when I first knew I wanted to be a doctor. We were Ulster Protestants and in those days, a wealthy Northern Irish girl could do almost anything she wanted. (But) you were expected to do some teaching and get married. The right sort of thing to study would have been English, history or Latin."

When the young Beulah expressed an interest in medicine, her uncle Joe, a Liberal councillor, urged her to opt for dentistry instead, with a view to meeting a husband. But the headstrong Beulah was having none of it - "I thought this old boy was talking off the top of his head and decided he knew nothing," she writes, instead, she followed her independently-minded spinster Aunt Betty's advice: "No woman should be entirely dependent on a man".

"Mum didn't let obstacles get in her way," Susan says. "She just sailed through them. She was a real pioneer in her field. Her aunt Betty would have been a role model and she was feisty - she had no intention of taking her uncle's advice to pursue dentistry instead of medicine, as it might fit in better with family life."

Beulah was keen to leave Ireland because "everyone knew everybody's business" and she was ambitious to escape the small town mentality.

She met Thomas Bewley while studying medicine at Trinity and they hit it off immediately. They married in 1955, when Beulah was 25, and lived in a rented flat near Essex while they both worked at St James Rush Green hospital for infectious diseases. After a stint in the US, they relocated to Dublin, where Susan was born in 1958.

"My mother and father made a good team," Susan confirms. "He was an unusual man in the fifties, in that he refused to join a university dining club because they didn't allow women members.

"Daddy always said mummy didn't bond with me in the same way as he did with the others because she nearly died when I was born. The after-birth didn't come out and she had to have two or three operations and six pints of bloods, and this was back in the Fifties."

Beulah and Thomas were good friends with the author Jennifer Johnston and the late orthopaedic surgeon Paul Osterberg, and spent many family holidays at his home in Hillsborough.

"We went to Northern Ireland twice a year - we'd take the car over in the ferry and visit friends like the Osterbergs in Hillsborough," Susan remembers. "We were very aware of the Troubles but people in England had no idea, beyond what they saw on the news.

"Paul Osterberg told us about the knee and ankle cappings he had to deal with, as well as having been stopped at gunpoint when on-call, so we had no illusions about the violence of the IRA or the Protestant paramilitaries. Both my parents supported the Alliance Party.

"I remember cousins advising us how to sound less English when we came over. They'd instruct us to practise with this line: 'A fella fell aff the larry', instead of 'a fellow fell of the lorry'. And Mummy used to talk about the hot press - I'd no idea until later than meant the airing cupboard - and going to see 'filims'."

When her youngest child, Emma (now 50) was three, Beulah went back to full-time education at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. An illustrious academic career followed, including high-profile projects on family planning and on the effects of smoking on children, and upmarket social events in which she rubbed shoulders with royalty and film stars like Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.

Susan says: "Mummy felt she was doing good, really affecting women's lives by helping them to avoid the burden of unwanted pregnancies and illegal/unsafe abortions. As a child, I remember her talking about supporting the 1967 Abortion Act and telling me a story of seeing a young woman who'd died of an illegal abortion during her time as a medical student, and another story about doing a delivery, where she ended up cycling back to the hospital with a stillborn baby in her bicycle basket.

"She has always been extremely concerned about children smoking. Smoking eventually kills half its customers. Her research showed that even only one cigarette a week in childhood made children's respiratory symptoms worse.

"Her advice for a long healthy life is what all doctors say: don't smoke, don't drink too much, keep active and eat healthy (non-processed) foods. But she would also point to the social determinants of health - not being born into poverty and having more equality in society."

Beulah retired in 1994, at 64, and three years later welcomed her only granddaughter, Hannah, Susan's child with her partner, Barbara Wesby. Susan is the only one that has followed her mother into medicine. Louisa (49) is an accountant, Henry (53) is a health and social policy officer and Emma (50) is a TV advertising producer.

Beulah and Thomas celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary last year. "I think I'm ready to die," she concludes in her enjoyable memoir. "I don't want to die yet, but eventually. Between here and death, I'd like to be treated with respect. I'm getting that from my family and friends. God is comforting in so many ways. So I'm optimistic."

  • My Life As A Woman and Doctor, by Beulah Bewley, is published by Silverwood Books (hardback £25). See silverwoodbooks.co.uk

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